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Tsunami Memorial Ceremonies Can't Hide Misgivings About Future Disaster Readiness

Residents rush to higher grounds following tsunami rumors due to a magnitude 6.9 earthquake.
Residents rush to higher grounds following tsunami rumors due to a magnitude 6.9 earthquake.

Ceremonies in southern Thailand marking the 10th anniversary of the 2004 earthquake and tsunami brought together hundreds of Thais, foreigners and dignitaries. But as Ron Corben reports for VOA from Bangkok, experts say despite millions of dollars spent on early warning systems, shortcomings remain in the region's disaster preparedness.

In Thailand's southern Phang Nga Province, ceremonies marking the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami tragedy were held near a marooned Thai police boat left inland by the waves' force a decade ago.

The late afternoon observance, led by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, brought together survivors, family members and dignitaries from the 14 foreign countries whose nationals perished.

More than 2,200 foreigners, mostly tourists in Thailand for the Christmas holidays, perished near Phang Nga. More than 1,000 victims came from Germany (534) and Sweden (526) alone. In Thailand altogether 5,400 people lost their lives, 2,500 of them Thai nationals.

Other victims came from Finland, Britain, and Switzerland, as well as Australia, Korea, Japan and the United States. Hundreds of Myanmar migrant workers also perished.

Across the region, 230,000 people lost their lives; 130,000 in the Indonesian province of Banda Aceh, which bore the brunt of the tsunami's power.

The tragedy triggered a massive international effort to put in place early warning systems in order to prevent such a loss of life reoccurring. The systems were set up across more than two dozen countries along with monitoring buoys afloat ready to gauge sea movements.

In the Asia Pacific region, earthquakes and tsunamis have claimed more than 910,000 lives since 1970. But there are fears now of growing complacency among local populations and governments.

Shamika Sirimanne, who focuses on disaster risk reduction at the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific, says governments need to spend more to avoid a repeat of the 2004 disaster.
"Take disaster (concerns) into the august halls of finance and planning so that they are aware that there are a huge amount of investments that need to be done and there's end to end early warning systems need to be put in place - a lot more needs to be done - this is an unfinished agenda."

Thai meteorologist Samith Dharmasaroja had warned of a potential disaster in the Asia Pacific from an earthquake and tsunami prior to the 2004 tragedy. Now Samith says there is inadequate maintenance of the early warning systems.

"The warning system that I installed - almost 100 warning centers at the Southern part of Thailand, south western part - nobody takes any responsibility, no body (carries out) any maintenance; the warning tower and they have no routine maintenance for each tower."

Thailand's top forensic scientist Pornthip Rojanasunand, spent almost six weeks in Southern Thailand working on victim identification with teams of international scientists and police. She says local police and communities remain unprepared for a future disaster.

"For the part immediately after the incident I think no; we still can't cope with that kind of incident - I mean in the large scale after the tsunami. The police still wait. The (forensic) knowledge of this kind of work will gradually disappear. The one's from the tsunami have to rotate and some retire. So in the future we still have a problem."

A sophisticated early warning system, costing more than $400 million is in place across 28 countries. But public education is lacking on the system is lacking and parts of it just don't work.

When an 8.6-magnitude quake struck Indonesia's Banda Aceh province in 2012, people panicked and shunned all purpose-built shelters. Instead they clogged roads to escape, while a network of warning sirens failed, remaining silent.